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The Old Pros Deliver

December 19, 1985

Three very different men from Illinois and the bear-like Speaker from Massachusetts, the commonwealth that sparked America's first tax revolt, formed themselves into an unlikely quartet to push tax revision through the House of Representatives. And, of all things, the unpredictable legislative body that refused last week to even debate the bill shouted it through this time on a voice vote.

To reiterate what has been said so often, the bill isn't perfect. That, in fact, was the highest compliment that many House members could pay it. Still, Wednesday's action was historic. As Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) said from the House well, "In my 33 years in Congress, we have never come this close." It was a particularly poignant moment in the House, for O'Neill is stepping down in 1986 after nearly 50 years as a state and national legislator.

Tax reform has been the issue of a much younger and different breed of lawmakers--the bright young crop of new national figures like Sens. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Bob Kasten (R-Wis.) and Reps. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) and Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). Tip O'Neill had served four years in his state legislature when Kasten was born.

But, in the end, it was the old pros who got the job done in the 435-member body that is precisely the broad cross-section of the American people--and, yes, their special interests--that was envisioned by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Anyone who watched O'Neill at work on Tuesday would know that he is by no means the buffoon of the 1980 Republican political ads. O'Neill has rightly been described as one of the most proficient and successful Speakers in the colorful history of the U.S. House. This is in part because he maintains close ties to his district.

So, too, does Dan Rostenkowski, the burly Democrat who grew up in a Polish-American community on Chicago's North Side and still serves as 32nd Ward committeeman. Rostenkowski has represented Illinois' 8th Congressional District since 1959, and probably can do so as long as he wants to. Critics talk about the special-interest pressures on Rostenkowski's House Ways and Means Committee as it revised President Reagan's tax-reform plan. But Rostenkowski talked about the working stiff who grumbled some every April 15 but still paid his taxes voluntarily. When Reagan issued his plan last May 28, Rostenkowski said, "In the end, tax reform comes down to a struggle between the narrow interests of the few and the broad interests of working American families." During his committee's long deliberations, Rostenkowski admirably did his part on behalf of working American families.

Then there was Robert H. Michel, the loyal soldier as House Republican leader who has stood by his President even when it nearly cost him his Peoria House seat. The 29-year House veteran was close to tears, observers said, when he called on fellow Republicans to rebel against Reagan last week. But on Tuesday Michel said that it was time now to give the President his chance to carry the day. Michel delivered. Courage and loyalty may be old-fashioned concepts, but Michel exhibited both in the past week.

And, of course, Ronald Reagan. Like Rostenkowski and Michel, Reagan's political roots still burrow deep into the Illinois prairie and the Great Depression where he was plain old Dutch Reagan broadcasting sports on radio. There is a strong streak of populism in the Reagan tax plan, even though the House product would provide a more equitable balance between the haves and the have-nots of America. The events of the past week demonstrated that, when Reagan is allowed to be Reagan, his personal appeal is impossible to ignore. He knows how to deal with the Dannys and the Tips of the world, even if his staff does not. But we also saw the American concept of checks and balances at work. When the balance wheel went askew, a chastened President had to trek to the realm of the congressional branch. It was a victory not so much for the Gipper as for the system.

The new leadership of the Computer Age may be in ascendancy, but the old pros were the ones who delivered the goods this week. Today they can relish the words of another Illinois prairie gentleman, Carl Sandburg: "This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers."

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